Excitement and Engagement at the Student Conference

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Last Friday morning I attended the ACLU-WA’s annual Student Conference on Civil Liberties held at the Vera Project in Seattle Center. To my surprise I found a bustling room of high school students who were much more awake than I was at 8:30 in the morning. We had a near-record 207 attendees from 12 high schools from around western Washington. 

ACLU-WA board member Jamila Johnson kicked off the event with her heartfelt story of how she became involved with the ACLU of Washington. While she was growing up in an interracial family in West Seattle, her parents would tell her of a couple, Mildred and Richard, living in Virginia in 1958. The couple got married and one night was awoken by police bursting in and finding them in bed. They were handcuffed and taken into jail for nothing more than the color of their skin. You see, Mildred was black and Richard was white. In 1958 interracial marriages were illegal in Virginia and at least a third of the country. Instead of spending time in jail, Mildred and Richard were forced to flee from the only home they knew.

After spending five years away, Mildred wrote a letter to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asking for advice. Kennedy referred the couple to the ACLU who took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1967 the Court unanimously found that bans on interracial marriage violated the Constitution.  Jamila’s story was powerful and spoke to the ACLU’s ideals of standing up for people’s rights and working to effect change.

The first session was devoted to teaching the students about their rights with the police. It started with skits performed by students from the Center School. The skits were then broken down by the panel moderator, ACLU-WA Communications Director Doug Honig, and cooperating attorney and legal expert Robert Flennaugh. The students were very engaged, asking questions and giving answers that showed a depth of knowledge and interest.

Students then had their choice of two workshop sessions featuring issues ranging from surveillance and student technology rights to censorship and abolition of the death penalty.  The workshops were packed and fostered a lot of in-depth conversations between the presenters and the students. In the censorship workshop, I watched as students’ viewpoints evolved from believing censorship didn’t impact them, to realizing it kept from them great literature like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, to asking how they could combat book-banning. During the next workshop I attended on “The Drug War: Really a Race War” presented by ACLU-WA staffer Mark Cooke. The students came into this workshop with a lot of background information and asked great questions, such as “Is it really true that people of color make up 60% of the prison population?” They were very curious and engaged. In all the workshops I observed, I saw an interest in activism, with students asking how to change the injustices they were learning about. I came away very heartened by the experience.

Following a delicious free lunch, we watched the documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply, which discusses the complexities often overlooked when people agree to online use agreements.  It exposes what the government and corporations can learn from the information we give online and via cell phones. University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo, who is featured in the documentary, gave a presentation following the film and answered questions. In an age of increasing surveillance, this topic is very important young and old alike.

Overall it was a very cool and interesting event. The speakers were thought-provoking and the students were enthusiastic.  I even overheard one student proclaim while leaving, “I can’t wait until next year’s conference.”

To view photos of the conference, click here

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